Mellman: Mired in Partisanship
Monday before Election Day, researching a piece that’ll never be read, I noticed Donald Trump’s approval rating had crept up to nearly 46 percent.
Having analyzed here the close relationship between presidents’ approval and their vote totals, I was momentarily taken aback.
For most of his term, Trump languished between 40-42 percent, which was consistent with Joe Biden’s then presumed poll lead.
But 46 percent suggested a closer race.
I quickly brushed it off — so many polls made it so clear that Joe Biden and Democrats down the ticket, were going to do so well.
As election night wore on, the shiver returned, transforming briefly into a sweat.
I’ve written about issues with polls elsewhere. Here I want to ask more broadly what happened in this election?
The short and startling answer is, not much.
After four years of Donald Trump’s severe intellectual and emotional impairments on daily display; after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the beginning of a “racial reckoning;” after Trump fought to take health care away from millions; after majorities acknowledged Trump was a serial liar and a racist who put himself first and didn’t care about people; after impeachment, COVID-19, a quarter million dead, an economy reeling; and after a $14 billion campaign, precious little changed.
A lot more people voted, but they didn’t vote very differently.
Trump’s share of the popular vote actually inched up 1 point over 2016, while Joe Biden improved on Hillary Clinton’s percentage by 3.1 points, with support for third parties obviously receding.
Biden’s popular vote lead increased by just over two points compared to Clinton’s, though the gains were well located, yielding an electoral vote landslide for the president-elect.
Biden did just over a point better than the average Democratic presidential candidate in the six elections from 2000 to today, and Trump about half a point worse than the average GOPer. Stability reigned.
In truth, Biden’s effort was heroic and he, along with his outstanding team, deserve kudos for a race brilliantly run.
But why so little movement after such massive Trump failings?
The reality is America is riven by, and mired in, partisanship, which, as I’ve said before, is a powerful drug. So powerful, it checkmates the influence of events, and even of other perceptions, in determining votes.
Consider a few facts:
Between 1948 and 1996 the average margin of victory in a U.S. presidential campaign was a hair under 10 points. Candidates won by landslides—10-points plus—in five of those 13 elections and by 15 points or more in four, peaking at 23.2 points in 1972.
Since 2000, that average margin shrunk by two-thirds, to just 3.4 points and hasn’t exceeded 7.2 points.
Partisanship petrified our politics, ossifying our voting behavior. Escaping the gravitational pull of partisanship is now nearly impossible.
In 1964, if people thought Lyndon Johnson a better choice than Barry Goldwater, they voted for him, by a huge margin.
Eight years later, if people thought Richard Nixon had done well, they voted for him, in overwhelming numbers.
Not so anymore.
Despite John Kasich, Cindy McCain, The Lincoln Project, Bill Kristol, Mike Murphy, Stuart Stevens and Former Republican National Security Officials for Biden, Trump garnered a larger share of the GOP vote than any Republican presidential contender in the history of exit polling.
When Ronald Reagan racked up a nearly 20-point nationwide landslide in 1984, he did a point less well with his co-partisans than Trump in 2020.
Lots of Americans who believed Donald Trump was a lying racist, who failed in responding to COVID, voted for him anyway.
So, with Election Day approaching, Trump’s job rating rose, as late deciding GOPers, put off by the president’s performance, decided they were going to cast their ballot for him anyway and resolved their cognitive dissonance by deciding he wasn’t quite as bad as they thought.
We’ll leave describing the triumph of partisanship in House elections to a later column. Suffice it to say the pattern is similar. National House vote margins too narrowed since 2000, particularly when presidents are on the ballot, raising the partisan stakes.
Partisan sclerosis has deadened the body politic. Nobody saw it coming because nobody recognized, nobody modeled, just how unresponsive we’ve become to everything but the pull of partisanship…
Says this mostly immovable Democrat.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.